Although of ancient origin, there are few authentic records of this clan. Records from 1450 show that the Clan MacEwen, together with the Clan Neill and the Clan Lachlan, formed the Siol Gillevray of the Gallgael. The genealogy proves that Clan MacEwen existed long before 1450 and that they were known as the MacEwens of Otter.
The Reverend Alexander McFarlane, minister of the parish of Kilfinan, writing in 1794, states that On a rocky point on the coast of Loch Fyne about a mile below the church of Kilfinan is seen the vestige of a building called MacEwens Castle. This MacEwen was a Chief of a clan and proprietor of Otter. The MacEwen lands were located on the southern shore of Loch Fyne with the Lamonts to the south, separated by the River Kilfinnan, and the MacLachlans to the north where the terrace slopes looked down onto Otter Spit and the stream divides the parishes of Kilfinnan and Strathlachlan.
Ewen of Otter, who gives his name to the clan, lived at the beginning of the thirteenth century. His name is derived from Eoghan which translates from the Gaelic as Born of the Yew Tree. Gillespic, 5th of Otter, flourished about a century later. In 1174, Malcolm MacEwen witnessed the charter by Malcolm, the Second Earl of Atholl, of the church of Dul to Saint Andrews. In 1219, Gilpatrik MacEwen was listed as one of the perambulators for the lands of Kynblathmund.
MacEwen tradition holds that the MacEwens supported Somerled in his stand against the Scottish crown's campaign to secure the western seaboard. They suffered severely when Alexander II campaigned against Argyll in 1222.
Swene MacEwen, 9th and last of Otter (the last Chief), granted, in 1432, lands of Otter to Duncan Campbell of Lochow in repayment for overdue loans, and resigned the Barony of Otter to James I. It was returned to him until his death with remainder to Celestine, son and heir of Duncan Campbell. In 1493, James V confirmed the barony of Otter to Colin Campbell, Second Earl of Argyll and thereafter Otter remained in possession of the Campbells.
The manner in which the Clan MacEwen lands were lost suggests that Swene MacEwen was a victim of the Campbell facility to exploit the law to their own benefit at the detriment of simpler neighbors.
Without lands, the MacEwens became a broken clan and found their way to many districts. Many settled in the lands of their cousins an neighbors - the MacLachlans. A large number are known to have settled in Lennox County while others went further afield to Lochaber, Perth, Skye and the Lowlands, including Galloway. Other MacEwens stayed where they were swearing allegiance to the Earl of Argyll, some eventually becoming hereditary bards and sennachies to the Campbell Chiefs of Glenorchy. Finally, other MacEwens settled along the shores of Loch Lomond, probably before the end of the 15th century. Records from around 1513 indicate that the MacEwens had been pretty well dispersed from their homeland. Another
MacEwen tradition claims that they fought on the side of Mary, Queen of Scots, at the battle of Langside in 1568. History does show that the last witch to be put to death in Scotland was Elspeth MacEwen. She was executed in Kirkcudbright in 1698. In addition, one MacEwen family held title to Barmolloch in Lorne around this time.
As with any refugee population, many of the displaced MacEwens turned to their relatives for assistance. This included the MacLachlans, who, historically, are direct cousins. Five hundred years ago, the Chief of Clan MacLachlan offered protection to their homeless kin in exchange for allegiance to the Clan. For the past 500 years, Clan MacLachlan has continued to serve in this role as protectorate to their MacEwen cousins.
To this day, unless a particular MacEwen family can be shown as not having sought protection from the MacLachlans, MacEwens desiring to join Clan MacLachlan will be openly accepted as part of Clan MacLachlan. This relationship has recently been confirmed by Sir Malcolm of Edingight, the Lord Lyon.
As can be seen in the above history, Clan MacEwen was independent until Swene MacEwen used the lands of Otter, and his title, as collateral for a loan he was ultimately unable to repay. As a result, these lands were forfeited upon Swene's death. The situation is made more tragic since no record of Swene's having an heir can be found.
The loss of both the lands and the Chief's title meant that Clan MacEwen was to become a broken clan upon Swene's death.
During this period in Scotland's history, the Highlands were a feudal state. Land "ownership" as associated with the Chief - and not the general populace. If the Chief was displaced, so were all of the clan members. Swene MacEwen's loss of his land resulted in the loss of the right to live on the land for all of the clan members. (Individuals that were forced to leave their homes in this manner are sometimes referred to as children of the mist.
Without a Chief to lead and speak for the displaced MacEwen families, no oath of allegiance could be made between the MacEwens and the Chief of another clan. Without this formal oath, the displaced MacEwen families could not create the traditional sept relationship.
History has embellished the story of Clan MacEwen's loss of title and lands to include both deception and treachery on the part of the Campbells. While the historical facts do not agree with this legend, its telling is amusing and worth presentation here.
It seems that Swene was suffered from many of the vices common to his day. He had a weakness for whiskey, wine and wagering. As a consequence to his unsatiable appetite for these vices, he quickly squandered his Clan's inheritance and needed to borrow money. So, he turned to the only Clan that was willing to loan him money - the infamous Campbells.
The Duke of Argyll, realizing he was dealing with a weak individual, refused to loan Swene any money unless Swene agreed to use his lands and his title as collateral. He also insisted on a repayment schedule that was essentially impossible to meet. Being desperate, Swene finally agreed to these devastating terms hoping the future would change his luck.
Realizing he was rapidly sinking into financial ruin, Swene decided to examine the only options left to him. Since he could not afford to continue repaying the outlandish duties forced upon him by the Duke, he decided to withhold payments and try to negotiate with the Duke for better terms. When the Duke refused to renegotiate the terms, Swene decided to withhold payments to force a renegotiation. This only succeeded in angering the Duke further. After a period of time, the Duke decided the time had come for him to meet with Swene in an effort to convince the Chief of the MacEwens it was time to pay his debts.
Since the MacEwen stronghold at Otter and the Duke's home at Inverary were some distance apart, the meeting of these two Chiefs represented a lengthy journey that would require planning and an overnight stay. The Duke proposed that Swene and his MacEwen entourage should travel to the Campbell stronghold to discuss Swene's financial plight. Swene, thankful to have a chance to finally present his case, was confident he could work out a compromise. He quickly agreed to the meeting.
On the evening following the MacEwen's arrival at Inverary, the Duke held a Ceilidh (feast) to honor their guests. While at the feast, the MacEwens were encouraged to imbibe freely of the whiskey and wine, which they did. After the MacEwens had become intoxicated beyond resistance, the Campbells proceeded to massacre them. With most of the MacEwens having been murdered, the Campbells were free to march into Otter and take possession of the lands with minimal resistance.
Those few MacEwens that survived fled their homes and sought protection from their neighbors, the MacLachlans.
Of course, one must also add the lesson learned from this story:
If you are ever invited to the home of a Campbell for dinner, beware!
For more information on Clan MacEwen, we recommend the following sources:
History and Legends of Clan MacLachlan, a self-published book, released in 1995, on the history of the MacLachlans, the Gilchrists and the MacEwens.
Clan Ewing of Scotland, by Elbert William R. Ewing, Cobden Publishing Company, Ballston, VA, 1922.
Clan Ewen, Some Records of its History, by R.S.T. MacEwen, John Mackay, "The Celtic Monthly" Office, 1 Blythswood Drive, Glasgow, Scotland, 1904.
Information on Clan MacEwen is also sold at the Kilfinan Hotel, Kilfinan near Tighnabruaich, Argyll, Scotland PA21 2EP. The phone number is 070 082 201.
More information on Clan MacEwen, including symbology such as crests and tartans can be found by visiting the Clan Ewing, the Clan Ewen Society, and the The McEwan Clan web sites.
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This page was last updated on June 21, 2011.
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